The Long Lost Startle by Joel Toledo
(University of the Philippines Press, Dilliman, Quezon City, Philippines, 2009)
Days after Ondoy, the first typhoon of several that devastated the Philippines in October, I got my first experience of brownouts in the middle of a metropolis of 11 million people, when a fire blew out a transformer in Quezon City. I sat in the dark with no fan or air conditioning, eating by candlelight, thinking of my loved ones both in the Philippines and back in the States, wishing them safe, recalling their voices and faces. It may have been the slowest, quietest night of my peripatetic, four-month stay.
As if to pick a scuffle with Grandpa Whitman himself, Joel Toledo asserts, in his sophomore poetry collection, The Long Lost Startle, “I can do with less electricity.” Hailing from a country where sources of power (both literal and figurative) are not dependable, Toledo has written a collection of poems that taps other kinds of energy—mostly meditative and mostly acquired through the poet’s powers of observation and reflection.
The night I sat in the dark in Quezon City taught me, I think, we all can do with less electricity, for the dark, if we’re patient enough to know it, can become a kind of solace, and certain things reveal themselves only in particular versions of quiet. Toledo’s book is, among other things, a reminder of this.
The Long Lost Startle, which follows his 2008 debut, Chiaroscuro (Unversity of Santo Tomás Press), doesn’t propose a radical return to nature, but the poems do have a strong connection to the natural world—its petty cruelties and sublime revelations, its noises, both grievous and sonorous, as one might “climb trees, collecting the carcasses of cicadas.” (I’ll return to a parallel image at length.) This is a voice that knows the sensations of the earth, its whims, its weathers, and its seasonal yields of agony, mercy, discovery, and joy.
In a poem, delightfully titled “Tree Five-Seven-Five” (I love the absurdity of a tree named with a number), Toledo composes a Roethke-like conversation with a garden critter.
could you please not forget your
This poem is one of several visitations about time passing. The poem ends:
Climb aboard and see
how I lean over,
how I age in this weather.
I need company.
Rhyme (of both the end and internal variety) is virtually non-existent in the collection, and consonance and alliteration make rare appearances, so when such devices do appear, they must be well-timed, which they are. Such subdued sonic effects, too, lend themselves to a kind of unplugged aesthetic. The silence of the poems clears out space for the struggle to recover “the long lost startle” of the title.
The speaker of these poems is poised between the twin stillnesses of birth and death, gazing at them simultaneously as often as the poet can stand it. The commotion between those two extremes baffles the serenity of one and the terror of the other. And so the speaker of Toledo’s poems is keenly aware of his own aging. He has a remarkable empathy—an adult’s empathy—for the sadness of children: “Nothing we do/can console them…Meanwhile,/we do what we can.” In another poem, the speaker recalls the death of his grandmother and admits, “I am wild with fear. I am inconsolable.”
So where is the relief? In “The Same Old Figurative”, the poem insinuates the imagery of baptism, though the speaker is less interested in water as a means of salvation and more interested in the rains as an opportunity for immersion, study and attention, an opportunity, in fact, for work:
It is only in its breaking
that the rain gives itself away. So come now and assemble
with the weather, notice the water gathering on your cupped
and extended hands—familiar and wet and meaningless.
You are merely being cleansed. Bare instead
the scarred heart; notice how its wild, human music
makes so much sense. Come, the divining
Let us examine the wreckage.
For Toledo, everything in the material (and perhaps psychic) world seems to move through ruin (a word which reappears throughout the collection). In the poem titled “Ruin”, Toledo writes: “And before the end comes, the complete/corrosion of all things beautiful.” Even the seeming permanence of the celestial is subject to extinction: “the stars and their kind shapes,/now gradually put out,/seemingly more distant, also perishable.”
In the face of such inevitability, how do we hold it all together? “We endure them despite their expected/tragedies.” The book is full of burdens and, still, it is a record of a figure who tries to stay steady in the middle of it all, annoyed—and even disconsolate at times—about what one person, as prone as he is to his own loss and affections, suffers, and amid such suffering, he persists, loves. Above all, the speaker refuses to be deprived of wonder. “And I am held//in awe of the things that move in the world,/or are moved,” declares Toledo in a tender tribute to his wife in a characteristic style of speech that resonates with its private ebullience.
As solitary as the voice seems (rarely does the speaker act or interact with others or his environment; instead, he is a rapt watcher, as if the observation, meditation is the work and the poem is work’s artifact), we can’t ignore the fact that the poems are expressly made in the context of human relationships. There are a good number of pieces in the collection dedicated to his children and to friends. So, it’s hard to fully disembody the voice of these poems.. That is, this is a book that footnotes a world of simultaneous solitude and companionship.
Although these are not elegiac poems, they’re not without darkness, duende, and small bursts, throughout the collection, of astonishment, a boldness of vision: “I notice, looking closer, the magnitude of noise ants make.” And with such attentiveness, the collection progresses toward praise. In the penultimate poem, Toledo writes:
…Yet these things
do not matter as much
as that rising sense of displacement, as if
where you are is not enough, as if there
in the very center of a split rock, you will find
a gentler heart, an almost throbbing heart,
the sun hitting it just right and you are
most welcome to listen.
The “as if” feels less like doubt and more like an intelligent questioning, a rational (and temporary) check to the realization that there could be something impossible and throbbing at the center of something hard and ancient. The collection has many beautiful and strange images, though the images, as the one above, often serve as doors that open into broader ponderings and abstractions.
Interestingly, these are poems that have the hardness of formal distance. Toledo inclines toward regular stanzaic form, a sense of order. There’s wonderful formal tension here, though. The long running syntax, punctuated by short stabs, livens the vertical pace of the poems. The line and stanza breaks help control—well—the voltage of such syntax. There’s an abundance of complex sentence structures, making use of appositives, adverbial and adjectival clauses, catalogs—as ways to sustain the energy of the poem across the breaks, across the enforced silences. Perhaps one of Toledo’s flaws is the uniformity of his diction from poem to poem—which is mostly arched—but which works beautifully when timed with the movement between meditation and exuberance.
You have to admire a poet who is interested in something akin to myth-making. The construction of images, constellations of language, that intimate both the material world and the absolutely confounding (and sometimes cruel) spiritual design that propels it. Toledo points us to “[t]hat keening sound beyond—/past the new wrecks of our bodies, down where the crickets/mutter their terrors.” I get the sense that he believes, if you observe the world long enough and with great care, if you can be still, then common beasts, works of art, memory, your very flesh and blood, can transport you to a metaphysical experience of the physical universe, an extraordinary vision of the shared, ordinary world: “And if I startle you, it is because I am speaking in the plural…”
I would like to point out, there are some poems in the collection that seem to take on not just the life of writing, but the culture of it. In “Craft”, you can imagine the litany of workshop critiques: “So they talk about detachment over and over,/like the idea is singular and repetitive and true,/as the higher voices that demand no less/than stillness and explains how/tiny movements are unnecessary and invasive, that all mistakes are acts of war.” And in “Clichés”, Toledo recalls, “We were taught/to mean, not be,” prodding the old MacLeish maxim.
Toledo considers the traditions that haunt him and his contemporaries in “Drunk Leaning Into a Poem”. He warns us, “The dead rise up and reclaim/their spaces in the tradition.” He continues with a more dire caveat: “The critics lurk ‘round the bend,/toasting the departure(d).”
The most provocative, personal, and artful commentary in the book about the current state of poetry is “The Irrelevance of Meter”. It is written in six fat sextets and ending in a one-line stanza, each line lengthening as the poem develops, as if the poem can’t be constrained by any regular metrical quantity. What the lines contain is evidence of a longing, a political and poetic one. There are:
crows that circled the coconut trees, cawing their cadence
of This will do, this will do, though by now you are conscious
that you have not been climbing trees for so long. What’s the use
anyway; you are cutting up your sentences and it is dark outside,
like the black rivulets of a raven’s feathers growing blacker, blacker
as you pushed its dead body closer to your face. Or during hide
and seek, moonlit nights when you were caught by your father
reading his magazines in the field, on the tree, yanking the branches.
I suspect Toledo, here, in referring to the archetypal provincial pastime of climbing trees, is critiquing the predominant ethos in contemporary Philippine poetry to expunge “local color” and references to Philippine life, particularly provincial living (as much of the country’s poetic production and criticism comes from the urban center of Metro Manila). The poet feels foreign to his very experience, which is homegrown, provincial, constantly recalled, even amid the urban chaos, in the body. Another poetry is demanded of him (one that puts distance between the poetry he produces and the poetry residing in his marrow and gut); “you have not been climbing trees for so long” because the critical gods have admonished him against acts of nostalgia, have warned against the pitfalls of mining the past. This poet, however, takes a step toward arguing against those gods: What’s the use, then, of “cutting up your sentences?”
There’s been an appropriate reaction against the trafficking of caricatures and shallow portrayals of Filipino life, but it seems our poets have inherited a rampant and incongruous fear of exoticizing oneself in a poem, a fear instilled by critics and the culture of writing workshops. Rather than challenging poets to re-see or see more deeply into these references, critics and workshops have asked poets to excise such images or avoid them all together. Succumbing to such fear, as a result, has led to a widespread silencing and erasure of the sensual experiences specific to our homeland. Out of fear of self-exoticization, whole lexicons, common and proper nouns, landscapes, backroads, and trysts go unrecorded. They vanish. And let’s face it, our literature is complicit. I suspect Toledo has had enough of such erasure (as have I).
(Notice, at the end of that last passage, Toledo gets an extra clever barb in, the image of the boy “yanking the branches”, implying there may be a little jerking off going on—and not just in the trees, not just in the provinces.)
The poem ends, if not with urgency, then with a welcome confidence and seriousness:
…surely the sounds are coming back, surely
you remember that cursed uncle, his unlamented passing,
dark stain of bird bodies impeding the sunlight, and how memory
makes no sound, gathers nothing in its alleys but moss and moving
figures, voiceless brilliances and darkness. You struggle to hear it,
the sadness, but it is the flicker of Christmas lights and you must see it
for it is beautiful and it illuminates and it leads to other dazzling ruins.
For our sake, and for the sake of Philippine poetry, I do hope “the sounds are coming back,” that the strange and familiar racket of our stories is, surely, irrepressible. For the sake of Philippine poetry, Joel Toledo may be one of the poets to bear that din. In that regard, The Long Lost Startle is an excellent foray, poses excellent questions, an excellent augur—startle, found.
Patrick Rosal is the author of My American Kundiman, winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, winner of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. His poems and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies including Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Language for a New Century. In 2009, he was awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior Research Scholar to the Philippines.